TAMPA — King's bleachers were full of fans, more so than in recent years.
Lions basketball had never truly been a postseason draw, considering the program had been to the playoffs three times and lost every game.
But on Tuesday night, the fans were full of emotion after the final buzzer sounded and the Lions upended Ridgewood 44-37. The community cheered the school's first region final berth in boys basketball since the school's doors opened in 1960, 17 years before Tampa mayor Pam Iorio graduated from King.
The doors will open for one final home game at 7 p.m. Saturday against Daytona Beach Seabreeze (18-7). At stake: a ticket to the final four next week in Lakeland.
"It's our first time and I'm excited," King senior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said moments after defeating Ridgewood. "Words can't explain how I'm feeling. This was the biggest crowd I think I've played in front of and it was the most exciting game of the year."
The good vibe followed King (22-6) out of the arena and into the hallway, where players munched on postgame food and mingled with friends and family.
The vibe was not so good after King was forced to forfeit its first four wins of the season for using an ineligible player. The immediate aftermath was predictable: disappointment, concern, anger.
King rebounded with a big win at Newsome then one against Freedom. With the holidays and a stretch of four games in five days to end December, there wasn't much time to sulk.
"The guys were disappointed, but they came together," coach Sam Lanier said. "… We just didn't have much time to be unhappy."
Two of the forfeits were wins against Class 5A, District 8 foes Armwood and Brandon. Ultimately, those losses cost the Lions the No. 1 seed in the district tournament. Newsome, a team King had defeated twice, earned the top seed.
"We had to wear the blue jerseys even though we didn't lose a district game (on the court)," Lanier said. "The guys just rallied around it."
Since Dec. 27, the Lions have a 20-game win streak. And though many get caught up in the Lions' offensive attack led by Fitzpatrick and his 14 points per game, Lanier notes the defensive effort.
For example, Ridgewood's 37 points was its lowest game total since this crop of seniors entered the school in 2005. King grabbed 19 defensive rebounds, blocked nine shots and recorded 11 steals.
The result has been a season to remember, one the players think about often and take pride in as classmates congratulate them.
"We talk about it all day, every day in school," sophomore Chauncey Day said of the season. "Did you see all those people in the stands?"
Izzy Gould can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3458.